The election spending numbers are in and they broke all the records: President Obama and Mitt Romney each raked in over $1 billion, independent groups spent $1 billion more and super PAC king Sheldon Adelson told the Wall Street Journal that next election he'll double the $100 million he spent this time. The total tab for federal elections? Over $6 billion.
Now behold -- amidst this unabashed auctioning of our elections -- the most dangerous myth of 2012: "We all freak out that the money in politics is going to change everything" Democratic pundit James Carville recently told Rolling Stone Magazine. "As it turned out, it really didn't change much."
For partisan operatives like Mr. Carville, who have built careers on horse race politics, you can understand why he might see it that way. But for those of us who care less about partisanship and more about what our elected officials actually do -- or fail to do -- once in office, the 2012 election portends a bleak future.
Look to nearly every regulatory failure, broken campaign promise and wasteful government expenditure, and odds are you'll find a ignoble tale of money corrupting the process and harming the interests of everyday Americans. Those are the same regulatory failures that created the great recession and the same Americans who can't afford lobbyists and four-digit contributions. The same folks whose approval of Congress wallows at record lows while they desert the two major parties in droves -- 2.5 million of them between 2008 and the end of 2011. And they are the same Americans who recently ranked government corruption second only to jobs when asked what the priority of the next president should be... while both presidential contenders completely ignored the subject.
Here's why unchecked campaign spending remains a problem:
1) While the biggest super PACs did not win the day, big donors did. Democrats beat huge outside spending, but they had to raise and spend roughly the same amount of money as the GOP, and the bulk of it came from large donors. Even with Obama's impressive 4-plus million donors, campaign finance watchdog Open Secrets reports that the President's campaign raked in 68 percent of its cash from large donors. Romney, 82 percent. Just over 0.3 percent of Americans donated $200 or more to candidates and PACs this year. And while many donors are altruistic, many of the biggest spenders are not. They invest in politics in order to reap a return, and studies prove it's a good bet. In a 2011 study, researchers followed a crucial tax policy debate -- "The American Jobs Creation Act" -- and calculated the amount companies who lobbied the bill saved on taxes based on the final law: 22,000 percent. That means for every dollar spent on lobbying, the companies got $220 in tax benefits.
2) Money buys access to politicians now more than ever. Lets use the "fiscal cliff," as the most recent example. Witness the steady stream of high power CEO's visiting politicians on Capitol Hill to tell them how they'd like to see the issue resolved. One group called "Fix The Debt" has raised more than $43 million to influence the economic debate, and had 54 CEO's plying Congress recommending policies that help them and hurt their employees. You want face time with your elected representative but you don't write big checks? Unlikely.
3) The "money primary" has narrowed to a jury of billionaires. Long before the infamous Citizens United court case opened the door to super PACs, the undue influence of money in politics made access to money -- not good ideas -- the primary litmus test for any political hopeful to gain his or her party's blessing. Now the money primary has narrowed to a small jury of billionaires who alone can ensure a well-funded bid. As a result, 2016 presidential hopefuls from both parties have already visited billionaire PAC donors to kiss their rings. Mega donors like Sheldon Adelson and Jeffery Katzenberg don't just get face time; future presidents come to them years before the action starts, and assure them that they share the same policy objectives.
4) The threat of rampant spending threatens politicians more than ever. Thanks to unlimited political spending, special interests overtly spend millions of dollars against politicians who vote against their interests. Politicians know this, and calculate every policy decision based on how it will affect fundraising and potential opposition spending. The public interest is often a secondary consideration, and accounts for the glaring regulatory failures that led to the 2008 economic crisis, and define a broken policymaking apparatus. Why are the banks still too big to fail? Why do Americans pay, on average, twice as much for prescription drugs than other industrialized nations? Why is tax policy overly complicated such that moneyed interests are incentivized to continually spend political money to protect their interests? Why do we waste billions of dollars a year on wasteful government spending? It's all about the money.
5) Lucrative influence industry jobs cause politicians and their staff to sell out the public interest, and prompt unprecedented numbers of politicians go straight from public service to K Street through the "revolving door." Over 5,400 congressional staffers and close to 400 members left Capitol Hill to become federal lobbyists between 2001 and 2011. The average pay raise for politicians? 1,452 percent. In this environment, elected officials and their staff routinely do the bidding of special interests in anticipation of those jobs, and once they leave public service, use their rolodexes to curry influence with their former colleagues. Weak lobbying and "revolving door" rules allow politicians to call themselves "historical advisors" to skirt current rules.
6) PACs will learn from this experience, change old habits, and spend more effectively next election. Expect major shifts in strategy and tactics, with more online ads, more opposition research, more robo-calls, more below the belt attacks by secret groups, and other innovations.
This is the context in which some Democrats muse that $6 billion elections aren't so bad after all, and Republicans like Karl Rove and Sheldon Adelson double down on plans to spend even more next time around. It's the next chapter in the longest running dysfunctional drama that makes ours a democracy in name only. And it is what inspired a group of conservatives and progressives to recently launch an ambitious new political campaign to change the entire system through sweeping overhauls of campaign finance, lobbying and disclosure laws. The campaign, Represent.Us is an unprecedented effort to unite grassroots progressives and conservatives -- who both genuinely want to end the auction -- behind the same, transformative political reform strategy.
The centerpiece is called the American Anti-Corruption Act, and its architect is former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter. It is legislation that would prohibit politicians from soliciting money from those they regulate; it would severely limit how much lobbyists can donate to campaigns; it would provide a $100 tax rebate for every American to contribute to candidates; it would make all political spending fully transparent; it would set contribution limits to super PACs.... it is bold enough that it proudly lives outside of the narrow range of debate in Congress today.
That's why Represent.Us is not beginning with Congress, but rather by enlisting one million Americans as "Citizen Cosponsors" of the Act. Once we have the army, we'll introduce the Act. Once we introduce the Act, we'll ask every politician to cosponsor it and promise not to loophole or delay it. And the ones who won't support it will become targets of a well run campaign to unseat them from office.
Represent.Us marks the beginning of the broad based, bottom-up, right-left movement that has been missing from the reform equation for too long. It represents the greatest hope we, the people, have to reclaim our elections and our government. If we fail, our nation will likely become yet another great empire that rose and then fell to the point of no return. The stakes are that high.